so good they can't ignore you by cal newport

Book: So Good They Can't Ignore You
Author:
Cal Newport
Rating: 5 stars

“Why skills trump passion in the quest for work you love.”

The Hustle & Flowchart boys ask the guests on their podcast what books they would recommend. I love this segment. I discover gems. 

One suggestion was Deep Work by Cal Newport. I haven’t read it. But, I finished an earlier work (2012) by Newport:  So Good They Can’t Ignore You.

And it was so good I couldn’t ignore it. Ha Ha Ha. 

It was so good I decided to start writing little book reports so I can absorb the material better, and have an easy reference.

It was so good that I want my college-aged sons to read it. Or at least read this summary to get the flavor. 

Anyways … 

The title is a Steve Martin (the white-haired comedian) quote. He was describing to reprobate interviewer, Charlie Rose, his approach to getting into show business. 

He decided to take years to master distinct elements to his craft like playing the banjo and absurdist storytelling. He eschewed the common comedy trope of ... Setup-Punchline. Setup-Punchline. 

Warning: Martin may have been the king of comedy back in the early 80s, but 10 minutes into the video below I didn't laugh. Maybe not my style or it just didn't age well?!?!?  He's certainly confident in his absurdity.

He honed his act so sharp, he couldn’t help exude confidence. And, that, Martin says, was the number one reason he connected with the audience so well, and why he became so popular.  They immediately felt the confident vibe, and let the guy on stage take control.

Control is a big theme in the book. Control over your career is integral to loving what you do. Newport explores how you seize control. 

In fact, he suggests that a great career doing work you love has three main components:

  • Creativity
  • Impact
  • Control

This brings us to the premise of the book:

There’s a fundamental flaw in the prevalent (since the 70s) advice of “do what you love” or follow a pre-existing passion” for a career. Instead, adopt the craftsman mindset, get good at rare and valuable skills, and, as a consequence of being a badass, become passionate about the work. 

Newport’s Rules For Creating a Great Career

Rule #1 - Don’t Follow Your Passion

steve jobs portrait

“Do what Steve Jobs did, not what he said.”

Historians hail Steve Jobs as a dude that followed his passions and excelled. Not true. He followed an opportunity that had the potential to be interesting and make money. 

If he had followed his passion, Steve would have been a bare-foot, broke Hare Krishna devotee sleeping on couches and begging for burritos.

The passion hypothesis is “the key to occupational happiness is to first figure out what you’re passionate about and then find a job that matches that passion.”

This doesn’t work. Or if it does, it’s very rare. It’s a risky bet on your future.

Newport says there is a 40-year old theoretical framework, Self-Determination Theory (SDT), that dives into what three psychological needs motivates us:

  • “Autonomy: the feeling that you have control over your day, and that your actions are important.
  • Competence: the feeling that you are good at what you do.
  • Relatedness: the feeling of connection to other people.”

Newport notes it’s interesting that “matching work to pre-existing passions” is not mentioned in the SDT framework. 

“Working right trumps finding the right work.”

Newport also noted that the passion hypothesis can be dangerous:

“The more I studied the issue, the more I noticed that the passion hypothesis convinces people that somewhere there’s a magic “right” job waiting for them, and that if they find it, they’ll immediately recognize that this is the work they were meant to do. The problem, of course, is when they fail to find this certainty, bad things follow, such as chronic job-hopping and crippling self-doubt.”

- Cal Newport

Al Merrick, founder of Channel Island Surfboards said he didn’t launch into his career with the idea of creating a massive empire. Instead …

“I set goals for myself at being the best I could be at whatever I did.”

This is how you stumble upon passion after diligent work. It’s not stated in the book, but you still have to listen to your heart to discover interests and talents. It’s not a slap-upside-the-head passion epiphany. 

Follow your interests. Go at them hard. Pay attention to what you learn. If something shows promise take a deeper dive. This requires the patience of a craftsman. 

Historically, craftsmen were born into the trade. The family specialty. You may not have been born passionate about making clogs, but working with your father, helping your family set food on the table, and carrying on an ancestral tradition were strong motivators to keep at it, and master the craft. 

clogs

Once mastered, the passion is inherent. You’re earning bread. You’re a recognized expert. When it’s time for new clogs, your community knows where to go. 

That’s a plausible path to a satisfying career that pays the bills. 

Unfortunately, this model is rare now, but Newport builds a compelling case you can create something like it for yourself, which will develop a hard-earned passion for your career.

Rule #2 - Be So Good They Can’t Ignore You (Or, the Importance of Skill)

You know those people who are so good at a very specialized stack of skills that they call all the shots in their work life. 

That’s a person that is so good they can’t be ignored. 

It reminds me of a superstar actor with a reputation, who is a guaranteed box office draw. You want to work with them despite questionable proclivities, diva attitudes, and stubborn beliefs about the development of character, or how to shoot scenes.

Or how about a business that has a mystique so powerful that their most lucrative activity is turning people away:

Or an elitist dating app.

These are extreme examples but illustrative of the type of positioning you’re after. You don’t have to be an asshole. You should master your craft, and exude the resulting confidence.

Newport says you must build up “career capital” to do this:

“The traits that make a great job great are rare and valuable, and therefore, if you want a great job, you need to build up rare and valuable skills - which I call career capital - to offer in return.”

- Cal Newport

So, how, exactly, do you build up these skills? Newport says you must use “deliberate practice,” which is building skills by stretching yourself beyond where you’re comfortable.”  It’s a term coined by Anders Ericsson.

Deliberate practice is next level structured practice. This stands in contrast to mindless repetition, which can help you refine narrow sets of skills, but not make life-changing leaps in performance.

Musicians, athletes, and chess players are very familiar with deliberate practice. Knowledge workers often are not.

Newport illustrates deliberate practice in his own life, as he wanted to stretch himself in the computer science field. Yeah, he can write fantastic books, and he’s a fricken professor in computer science. Guess this stuff works. He applied a framework so that he would actually hold himself accountable for performing deliberate practice. 

For most, it is not a natural inclination to strain your brain and make yourself uncomfortable on purpose, so you have to put structures in place. 

First, a time structure. He committed to one hour a day of deliberate practice. He says it took an average of “ten minutes for the waves of resistance to die down.” He was able to power through the difficulty because he had a time limit. He could convince his brain that it only had to strain for 60 minutes. 

strain the brain

The second structure Newport used was an information structure so that he could capture the results. His examples are specific to math stuff I’m not familiar with: proof maps, self-administered quizzes forcing him to memorize key definitions, and proof summaries. 

But I get the concept. Unpack it, so you can see the connective tissue and the building blocks. Document what you’re learning. Apply it. Make it real. Work with it so that it gets absorbed.

Another example of deliberate practice is the story Newport shares about Alex Berger.

Berger wanted to work in Hollywood. He arrived on the west coast with guns blazing, blasting out numerous big project ideas. Nobody cared. 

He reduced his focus to something very specific: television writing. He discovered the only thing that mattered in his new field was writing compelling scripts.

He improved his scriptwriting ability by spending inordinate amounts of time working on multiple scripts at once and seeking out “ruthless feedback” from his peers. He got better quickly. And, it opened up opportunities like co-creating a show with Michael Eisner.

Rule #3 - Turn Down a Promotion (Or, the Importance of Control)

Be careful as you negotiate control in your career. There are traps.

Trap 1: The courage culture also preaches control of your life and career, but they only express it on a superficial level. Quit your job and be your own boss. Great advice if you’re prepared. If you don’t have the “career capital” in place you might find yourself crying alone in the woods or standing in the food stamp line, as Newport describes.

Trap 2: Newport gives examples of people that built up a stack of skills that distinguish them. They became so valuable their employers offered them promotions. 

Great! However, if the new role doesn’t offer more autonomy, it’s fools gold. There may be more pay, but it’s not increasing your control, which one of the three attributes that define a great job.

Part of the control traps is knowing when you’re ready to take the leap. Judge this by gathering evidence that your venture is something that people are willing to pay you for. If that evidence exists move forward. If it doesn’t move on to the next opportunity.

Rule #4 - Think Small, Act Big (Or, the importance of Mission)

A mission gives you more energy. A clear mission provides a framework to help decide what activities and skills you should be pursuing. And, it maximizes your impact. But, most people get it backward and choose the mission before they collect career capital.

“To have a mission is to have a unifying focus to your career.”

Once you’ve gone through the process of obtaining career capital you will have a much better understanding of the market terrain and will be in a much better position to develop a mission.

This is where Newport introduces the concept of the adjacent possible, which is where you can see the next big ideas in any field. The only way you can do that is to be on the current cutting edge of the field. 

You must put in the hard work to be in that position. Then, you can develop your mission:

“A good career mission is similar to a scientific breakthrough—it’s an innovation waiting to be discovered in the adjacent possible of your field.”

The “small” referenced in the name of the rule is small thinking required to narrow your focus to a few subjects for a long time. Once you discover your mission in the adjacent possible, then you take massive action.

But, before you take that massive action. Test the mission with a tiny bet. This bet is a project/experiment you can accomplish in a month that will give you concrete feedback on whether or not your idea is viable.

Once you’ve solidified your mission with a successful little bet, make sure it follows the law of remarkability. Meaning ...

  1. It compels people to remark about it.
  2. It is launched into a venue that supports remarking.

Newport’s book is remarkable because he’s pushing back against the “courage culture” and the “passion mindset.” 

“You are either remarkable or invisible.”
Seth Godin, 
Purple Cow

And he launched his ideas on his blog, which can be a great venue for people to consume information, remark on it, and share it with others.

Another “remarkable” example Newport shared is combining two disciplines into one project. He uses Giles Bowkett’s story to illustrate. Bowkett combined his music creativity with his Ruby on Rails programming prowess to develop an open-source project called Archaeopteryx, which was an AI-driven electronic music creator. 

It was such a novel piece of work people in the open-source community shared it often. The key to the virality was that Bowkett released it into this established community that shared amazing stuff at scale. 

Bowkett gained a lot of notoriety from the project, which made him a hot commodity and gave him enough career capital to shape his work life exactly how he wanted it.

Conclusion

Newport eats his own dog food. He wrote this book because the topic was remarkable. His career has followed the path he maps in the book: building up career capital with deliberate practice. 

He elaborates in the conclusion, which helps solidify the concepts in the book. 

“Passion is a side effect of mastery.”

After the conclusion, Newport added a section of career profile summaries, so you can look at his case studies from the book at a glance. There's also a glossary of the terminology. Very helpful for quick reference.

Newport is a wizard at chunking up large swaths of information for retention and application. It's only natural he has books, a blog, and courses on study hacks. 

Yeah, that’s right, he’s a computer science professor, a best-selling author, and an entrepreneur. All this and he looks like a teenager in his author photo. 

Referenced Books of Interest
Little Bets by Peter Sims
Talent is Overrated by Geoff Colvin
Where Good Ideas Come From by Steven Johnson
Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise by Anders Ericsson


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